#1 Healing a family
Following the death of his wife, Genji Yoshioka is left all alone. Already a bitter fellow when his wife was still there, Genji has now resolved to isolate himself from his family and friends. To sit on his porch and smoke away what remains of his life—angry and alone. Until one day a robot comes knocking at his door.
Concerned for his well-being, his family has rented a housekeeping robot. Ostensibly to help him around the house, of course, though also very much to keep the old grump company. However, this robot has a problem. She is an outdated model, from an era where helpers were designed to look cute rather than be efficient. She has all manner of shortcomings and issues, making her almost useless for day-to-day use. Something that inspires Genji to give her the name Ponko. As in “Ponkotsu”, which translate to “junk”.
Though she causes him no small amount of trouble, it’s through Ponko that Genji reconnects with people around him. His philosophy is such that he doesn’t want to be a person that ties others down. He is rude and dismissive to others, especially his family, mostly as a defense mechanism. He wants them to pursue their own lives, instead of sacrificing their time to make an old coot’s remaining days that little bit nicer. Noble, but it ignores that people might actually love him. That they might enjoy spending time with him.
Thanks to Ponko, Genji gets out of the house. He interacts with people and slowly begins to drop his guard around them. She even helps him mend relationships that he deliberately broke off in the past. He does remain grumpy and stubborn, but frequently shows a more honest side of himself.
In return, Ponko finds purpose in living with Genji. She dreads being seen as irrelevant, even though she understands that she is literally oudated. Any other robot could do her job better than her. But Genji doesn’t need an efficient robot. As her personality blossoms and her relationships deepen, Ponko finds renewed purpose in love. She becomes part of a family—a community. So long as she loves people and is loved in return, she is not junk yet.
#2 Bittersweet undertones
Useless Ponko is also, in a sense, tragic. For all its fun and love and joy, there is a bittersweet truth hovering over everything else. Both Ponko and Genji are not long for this world. Death is imminent.
Genji is an old man of dubious health, prone to recklessly overexerting himself. Ponko, meanwhile, is a model so old that she is basically irreparable. She looks alright on the surface, but decades of accrued damages have left her literally falling apart. Both of them endure several close calls throughout the story: system crashes, fainting, parts breaking off. Genji has literal encounters with the Grim Reaper. Each incident is more severe than the last, giving the impression that these two really are slipping away from us.
You can heal the soul, but you can’t stave off death forever.
Impermanence is a major theme throughout the story. All good things come to an end, whether that be the death of loved ones, cherished possessions breaking down, or memories fading away. Some of the most emotional moments in the story revolve around Genji processing a lifetime of losses. His childhood memories of a friend who passed away, his reluctant acceptance when a cherished photobook is lost, or his flashbacks to when his house was a warmer place filled with family.
These themes are pronounced, but never so much that it sours the comedic side of the story entirely. It forms a bittersweet mix, where humor and healing coexist with the occasional touches of sadness.
#3 Solid all-around comedy
I can’t recall the last time when I breezed through a manga this quickly. Certainly not one this long. Useless Ponko was extremely entertaining to me. Thanks in large part to how it taps into so many different flavors of comedy.
The day-to-day life of Genji and Ponko is filled with hilarity. Most of these revolve around the chaos that stems from Ponko’s deficiencies. Sometimes these lead to goofy misunderstandings and funny banter, at other times they turn into explosive misadventures. Ponko also gets roped into a bunch of silly activities by the locals. There’s an entire arc about her and the village kids starting up an amateur band, for example. Or how about a storyline where Ponko’s body is stolen by bears and a bunch of locals get together to help her.
Unlike other manga, such side-adventures don’t feel like they are dragging the manga out. Even when Genji is less involved, his reactions to Ponko’s shenanigans still build on his character development. Like when the old grouch reluctantly shows up to watch a sports match that is important to Ponko.
There are also a lot of visual gags. Ponko reminded me of Yotsuba a lot, though in the sense that the two are the antithesis of each other. Yotsuba feels lively due to the incredible range of expressions, whereas Useless Ponko draws humor from its protagonist’s lack of expressions. Changing her face takes effort, so a lot of the time Ponko is stuck with the same happy look regardless of the situation. She sits around depressed, heavy shading all over her, but still has the same 😀 face.
A friend informed me that Ponko has become a popular character for reaction images. I can certainly see why.
#4 Endearing side-characters
The town where Genji and Ponko live is an endearing little community. Everyone knows everyone else, and everybody is generally kind to each other. Ponko goes on to befriend many of these people, who then go on to star in many of the manga’s stories.
The rowdy middle schoolers, the stoic “boss” who runs the local café, the old man who feigns senility, or the robot-crazy guy that runs the local construction firm. Many of them are afforded the spotlight throughout the manga and enjoy solid character development as a result.
#5 Futuristic culture clash
Rural Japanese towns always makes for such nice, rustic settings. Useless Ponko is set in a coastal village, settled between mountains and forests. However, as the existence of robot housekeepers implies, it also takes place in the distant future. A future of incredible automation and luxury technology… if you happen to live in the right place.
The city of Neo Tokyo is booming with tech. All the latest gadgets and conveniences, literally tripping over each other for people’s attention. The countryside, on the other hand, is lucky to have scraps of all this luxury kicking around. 30-year-old robots and maybe a drone or two. A lot of humor stems from this disparity, such as Ponko struggling with not always having an internet signal or having to explain concepts like online shopping.
A fun clash of cultures unfolds in chapters that feature Yuuna; Genji’s granddaughter from the big city. Yuuna grew up surrounded by all this tech, so she is left baffled when visiting the village. She resents it all at first, but gradually comes to love the countryside and its way of life. A challenge that is then turned around when Genji has to visit Neo Tokyo.
More like this…
Dagashi Kashi: Culture clash between modern city life and rural areas.
Yotsuba&!: Jokes revolving around the expressions of the female protagonist.
Chobits: Defective robot finds new purpose.